Posts Tagged ‘Zack’

Penny bounced on the back seat while she called out to Zack. “We go? We take horsy?”

Steve laughed. “We go.” He slapped Zack on the back and chuckled at the uncomfortable look on the kid’s face. “Remember, slow and easy taking off, and it will take longer to stop with the extra weight.”

Zack shifted in the seat with a bit of discomfort. “Got it.”

The drive down the access road was a bit hairy, but once they pulled on the blacktop the morning wore on pretty uneventful as they drove down State Road 505 toward US 90 West. The rough hill country terrain had disappeared shortly after they left the cabin and trees grew more stunted, and patches of bare earth turned into even more arid land. The straight arrow road disappeared into the distance. Mountains gradually appeared through the haze in the distance.

Zack pressed his foot on the gas, but Steve interrupted. “Keep it around forty. Remember about stopping.”

“Valentine Texas? I saw a special on television about that town. It’s famous. The post office receives thousands of cards every year so they can be sent from Valentines all over the country.” Darlene announced.

Della laughed. There was a movie called “Dancer, Texas” filmed there in the nineties.”

“And that’s important why?” Steve turned and asked.

Della poked him with the tip of a slender finger. “It was a cute movie. I wonder if the eighty or ninety people who lived here are alive.”

Steve sighed. “I guess we’ll know soon enough. It’s not much more than five miles ahead. Then we pass Lobo. Then hopefully, a clear shot to the mountains.”

“There’s a Prada store there.” Della laughed. “I saw it on a Sunday morning program, Prada Marfa was erected as a work of art. It has shoes and stuff from a Prada collection.”

“For sale?” Darlene asked. “Can we stop?”

Della shrugged. “No. It never opened. Supposedly, it’s an earth-friendly building that will decay and fall into ruin along with the shoes and purses. I doubt anything there will be worth our time.”

Steve chuckled. “Not many places to wear high heels now.”

Darlene sighed. I could have tried on a pair of Prada shoes.”

Zack interrupted the conversation when he stepped on the breaks. “There’s your Prada store, but where’s the rest of the town?”

Zack slipped the truck into gear and stepped on the accelerator. The truck pulled away from the cabin as his eyes filled. “We could make her come.” He whispered.

“It was her decision. She only has a few days of medication left.” Steve answered.

“What if someone comes?” Darlene argued.

“She has a gun,” Steve answered.

“She can barely see. How can she protect herself?”

“Not why I gave it to her,” Steve answered with a catch in his voice. “Enough. Drop it.”

Darlene flopped back in the seat more than a little angry while Della remained quiet. Her words had failed to dissuade her when Millie announced her intent of staying behind when they left. Despite Della cussing and discussing the decision over and over again for the last two days, Della knew she could say nothing that would change Millie’s mind. In the end, Millie turned away and refuse to even discuss it.

Zack followed the narrow trail back to the shed and corral. The horses milled around the gate, anticipating their daily allotment of hay. Zack stopped the truck, and Della jumped out of the back seat door anxious to be out of the cab and the sadness of sniffles and tears. She hurried to the trailer and stood next to the hitch on the trailer with her arm above the connection.

“Can you do this?” Steve asked with a raised brow.

“Hope so,” Zack answered.

He slipped the truck into reverse, and it moved toward the trailer. Della began to point to the right. When Zack seem to ignore her guidance, she made a more frantic pointing motion and yelling, “Right! Go to the right!”

Steve turned and could see he was missing the hitch. “Hold up a minute.” Zack kept moving, and Steve shouted. “Stop!” Zack stopped, jerking everyone against the seat belts. Steve leaned forward. “Let’s try this again, but this time, you do what I say. Let’s do this slow and easy, okay?”

“Alright.” Zack pulled the truck forward, stopped and put the truck in reverse.

“Straighten the wheel before you start moving, then just do as I say,” Steve spoke calmly.

After three long minutes of left then right and back again, the trailer was connected, and Zack pulled the trailer from the barn. “Damn. That’ a lot longer than I thought it would be.” He stopped when he got well past the gate and again slipped the truck into reverse.

“This is a little different,” Steve instructed. “You turn the wheel in the opposite direction you want the trailer to go. It seems crazy, but that’s how you do it backing up a trailer. Now, straighten the wheel and get a clean start.”

Zack took his foot off the break and with a few adjustments, the trailer rolled toward the gate.

“Wheel to the right,” Steve instructed. “Ease off the gas. Slightly to the left.” A moment later he announced. “That’s it. Stop.”

Zack jerked stepped on the break with a sigh of relief. “Shit. I would have never gotten that done by myself.”

Darlene and Penny climbed out of the cab to watch all the activity fro the side of the corral. Della and Zack walked inside the pen closing the gate behind them and bridled each of the horses. Once they were each tied to the fence, Zack led them, one by one, into the trailer and tied them in place. The whole process took nearly an hour. When Zack was done, he got back in the cab with a sigh of relief while Darlene, Penny, and Della climbed into the back seat.

She looked at the double doors and saw multiple pairs of feet outside the sliding doors. She took a deep breath and ran for the stall door. She grabbed the door and swung it across the opening. The infected man saw the movement and changed focus and stumbled toward the opening. She slammed the door and drove the latch home and a clank just as the infected man slammed against the wood.

Releasing the door, she reached for the saddle and grabbed the saddle horn and pulled it from the stall rail. She stumbled back, landing on her butt when the saddled fell against her.  She scrambled to her feet as the sliding door parted and the first of several infected fell into the barn.

Della picked up the saddle and turned toward the distant entrance and the ATV. She was shocked at how heavy the saddle was, but she half drug, half carried the saddle away from the sliding door as two more infected stumbled through.

With her breath echoing in her ears she pulled and hurried as the monsters drew closer. Suddenly the weight disappeared and saw a dark shadow at her side. She raised the machete, and a deep voice called out.

“Run, I got this,” Zack ordered. “Get on the ATV and crank it.”

She turned and ran. Zack stayed at her side with the saddle now slung over his shoulder. They got to the ATV, and while she started the engine, Zack threw the saddle of the pile on the rack and used a bungee to secure the cargo of saddles and bridles.

Zack climbed on the machine, kicked down the clutch and shifted into gear. He gunned the engine just hands reached for them. She swung with the machete. Blood a dark, ugly color spirted toward them as she screamed.

“Faster!” Della screamed.

Zack accelerated, and the front end jumped several inches off the ground, he leaned forward and gave the engine more gas and the pulled away leaving the monsters behind. By the time they got to the road, both were laughing.

The next morning Zack used the ATV to carry Millie down to the corral to orchestrate lessons in saddling, bridling and caring for the horses. Each of the adults took turns saddling and riding. With Darlene, it wasn’t pretty, but she did stay on the horse. When they got back to the cabin, a conversation that had started earlier began again.

“We’re safe here. I don’t know why we have to leave.” Darlene protested again.

“I definitely think we’ve outstayed our welcome,” Steve argued.

“Why would you think that?” Darlene protested. “We have everything we need here.”

“The military boys that rolled into Utopia are probably not the only ones out there scooping up everything they can get their hands on. We’re less than fifty miles from Utopia and half a dozen other communities. Any one of them could be building a power base. ”

“What if we run into them?” Darlene asked.

“I’m hoping we don’t. That’s why we’re taking back roads.” Steve answered. “We avoid populated areas as much as possible. Less chance of groups of infected too.”

“Enough of all this gloom and doom talk. It’s time for us to have our biscuits and gravy.” Millie announced. She set a pan of golden brown biscuits on the table with a skillet of light brown gravy mixed with chunks of raccoon meat from the previous night’s meal.

Three days later, Steve watched as Zack finished loading the few supplies they had come with in the back of the truck. He threw a mesh net over the supplies at the front and tied them down. He waved at Steve.

“Good to go.” Zack grinned. “Are you ready?”

Steve looked down at the prosthetics in his lap. The stumps were still tender and slightly swollen, but the open sores had healed. He extended his right leg and held out the prosthetic cuff to slide in the stump.

“No,” Della ordered. “You can keep them in the front seat with you. Something happens you can put them on in the truck.” She nodded toward Zack and held out her hand for the prosthetics.

“Hey, man, she’s really mean.” Zack climbed the steps and picked up Steve with a wide grin.

Steve frowned and leaned into Zack’s wide arms.

He settled in the front seat and accepted his running legs. He lay them on the floor while Della, Darlene, Penny climbed in the back seat. Both Della and Darlene struggled to keep tears at bay.

Millie stood next to the truck and watched the travelers get settled. “This is a good place to spend my last days.”

Penny leaned out the window. “Come on Granny. We can make room for you.”

“No child, I’m too old for this life. My bones ache, and I’m tired. I got what I need right here.”

“But….” Darlene interrupted. “We’ll find more pills.”

“And in another month down the road, you’ll be lookin’ again, and it’ll be that way until there isn’t any more. Same end.”

“But you’ll be with us,” Darlene argued.

“That’s the point. I won’t have the child see it.” Millie answered.

Steve raised his hand. “Goodbye, Millie.”

He patted Zack’s shoulder, and Millie stepped away to wave with a sad smile on her dark face.

Together they stepped into the shadows of the barn.  The silence was heavy and ominous after the roar of the ATV’s motor.  Della could hear Zack breathing.  As his breathing began to slow, she became aware of another sound.  She heard a shuffling sound and then a gentle brush against wood somewhere deeper in the barn.

Della held out her hand, and they both stopped.  “I hear something.”

Zack whispered. “It’s at the other end of the barn.  Let’s get in and out.”

Della gave a quick nod and flicked on a flashlight.  She fanned it across the dark recesses of the long passageway.

“Nothing.”  She answered as she swung it into the tack room. After a quick pass around the room, she stepped through the doorway.

Della pulled a list from her pocket.  She grabbed a burlap bag and walked to the wall on the left.  She pulled half a dozen bridles from the wall.  She walked to a work bench picked up a grooming box and dumped the contents into the bag.  She tied the end with a length of rope and picked up three saddle blankets.  She carried the items to the ATV and settled them on the back cargo rack.

She hurried back to meet Zack carrying two saddles toward her.  “Only two in the tack room.  Got to be a lot more around here.”

“I think I saw at least a couple hanging over the side of the stalls in the barn,”  Della answered as she helped him stack the saddles on the rack.

“Great.”  Zack lamented.

“I have the bridles and three blankets,”  Della answered.

“Let’s get this over with.  I can carry two saddles if you can carry one and the blankets.” Zack answered.

“Sounds good,” Della whispered as she pointed the small LED beam down into the dark.  “There.”

She focused the beam on the closest stall.  Hung over the top board was a saddle with a saddle blanket next to it.  “One.”  She whispered as they walked deeper into the barn.  She examined the next stall and saw nothing.  She quickly moved the beam to the next stall, she hesitated, then added.  “Two.”

“Gotta find one more,” Zack commented.

Della hurriedly fanned the beam to the opposite side of the barn.  “There!  At the end, on the right.”  She let out a long sigh.  “I’ll get that one.  You picked up the other two and let’s get the hell outta here.”

Zack held out a dark hand.  “Be careful.”

“You too,”  Della answered as she quickened her steps.

Della hurried down the corridor of the barn.  She glanced over her should see Zack had gotten to the second saddle.  With a powerful arm, he pulled the saddle and blanket from the top board of the stall.  Suddenly, Della realized the scratching was louder and closer.

She stopped and fanned the beam of light from left to right.  She stumbled when she was clouded eyes staring back at her from the stall holding the saddle.  She kept the beam on the face and stared.  The gate was open, but the infected reached through the slats of the stall.

“Shit.”  She whispered.

Della fought for control of her breathing and her racing heart.  She raised the machete in her hand to hit at the infected then dropped her arm to her side.  The board where the saddle rested was too high to get to the infected person.

She thought about stepping into the stall with the monster but hesitated.  She could pull the saddle down and take a chance of the monster coming through the door after her or do something about the problem.

The stall door opened outward.  If she closed the door, she could trap the monster, pull off the saddle and run. She glanced at Zack as he grabbed for the second saddle.  A slam against the double doors a few feet beyond the stall made her jump.

“Shit!”  Della cursed.

Zack pulled into the small yard in front of the cabin. He turned off the engine and the six travelers sat quietly in the waning light. The hunting cabin was a throwback from a hundred years ago.  The siding was weather cedar that had grayed years ago.  The tin roof was rusted but look to be in good shape.

Millie leaned forward. “Don’t y’all suppose we’d better get settled before it gets dark?”

Steve nodded and answered. Let’s check it out, Zack.”

The two men got out of the truck. Zack carried a crowbar and Steve a handgun. They crossed the bare packed earth to the front porch. Oak leaves danced across the faded planks of the covered porch. Windows at the front of the cabin were dusty but were crack free. The weathered wood door had a gate latch with a padlock for security. Uncovered windows on either side of the door allowed the waning light to expose the minimalistic furnishings inside.

“Someone’s hunting camp. If we’re lucky, there’s a cistern or water well.” Steve whispered as they stepped on the porch.

He pointed to his eyes with two fingers then to the window closest to Zack. He sidestepped to the window to the right and pressed his back against the rough wood logs of the wall. He leaned over the edge of the window and peeked inside.

Zack watched the procedure and repeated it at the window on the left side of the door. “Nothing here.” He whispered.

“Stay here.” Steve mouthed.

Steve stepped off the porch and stumbled around the side of the building. He followed the solid wall to the back of the structure. Looking through the back windows, he realized the structure was a single room with a ladder access to a loft overhead. The back of the cabin included barn doors on an overhead track. He made his way around the corner and a massive stack of firewood at the side of the house. He stepped back up to the porch with Zack.

“Anything?” Zack asked.

“Looks good. Let’s get inside. It’s almost dark.”

Zack picked up the padlock and shoved the crowbar through the hasp. With a snap of his wrist the lock snapped open. He pulled the lock off the door and laid it on a window sill.

Steve opened the door leading with his gun hand. He fanned his barrel from left to right and then back again as he studied the shadows inside. The building was set up with a sink, and few cabinets and a table at one end. The rest seemed devoted to providing sleeping quarters. Bunk beds and from what he could see, a couple more twin beds overhead.

“Let’s move ‘em in.” Steve commented.

Zack went to the truck, while Steve lit a kerosene lamp on the table. He limped to the sink and examined a hand pump. He pumped the handle a few time and rusty water spilled from the spout. After a few more pumps of the handle, the water flowed clear and clean. He dipped his hand in the stream and brought it to his nose. It smelled fresh.

Zack and the women walked into the cabin. Millie still holding Penny’s hand crossed to the sink when she saw what Steve was doing. “Young man, you need to sit done.”

“I’m fi….” Steve drug his arm across his forehead.

Millie interrupted. “Young man? I’m not suggesting, I’m telling.” She walked to the sink and found a pan. She filled it with water then looked in drawers until she found a dishtowel. When she turned back she glanced at Penny. “Child, tell that boy, Zack, to bring us that chair on wheels.”

With another glare from Millie, Steve settled on the chair at the table. She nodded toward the prosthetics and Steve removed the right leg then the left. Both silicone cuffs were smeared with blood when he pulled them from his legs.

Della came in carrying an armful of supplies. She saw Steve’s ulcerated legs and gasped. “I told you. How could you let it get this bad? You’re running a fever.”

Steve shrugged. “I didn’t see I had much choice.”

“Well we do now. We stay until you’re healed.” Della announced.

Millie sat the pan of water on the table and another pan on the floor at the front of the chair. She soaked the rag and dribbled water over the red angry flesh. After the first couple passes of cold water over the flesh, the shock lessened and began to numb the pain. Steve sighed in relief.

Millie looked up when Della walked in the cabin with another armful of supplies. “You got medicine for this?” She asked Della.

“Yes, mam.”

Penny came in with Zack carrying the wheel chair. He looked at Steve’s legs and cringed. “Man that looks painful.”

“A day or two and it’ll be fine.” Steve began, but Della interrupted.

“NO! You need to rest at least a week.”

“Mommy? I really gotta go to the bathroom.” Penny announced.

Darlene looked around the room, then to Steve.

He grinned. “Out house in back. We got running water though.”

“Praise the Lord for that but, an outhouse?” Darlene groaned. “Gross.”

Zack laughed. “I saw it out back. It’s close to the shed. I thought I’d check it out so I’ll show you.”

They walked to the barn doors and unlatched one door and opened it. Zack pulled a LED light from his pocket. He led Darlene and Penny through the back door.

“Let’s cover the front windows and close the door when we get everything inside. I don’t want to advertise we’re here.” Steve announced.

Della placed a tube of ointment on the table with two rolls of gauze. “We have what we need inside. I’ll cover the windows.”

Two hours later, Millie had schooled Zack on starting a fire in the wood stove in the kitchen. They had found kindling in a bucket by the stove and wood at the side of the house. She pulled a pot from a cabinet and dumped an assortment of cans in it and added a can of diced chicken.

All remains of the day slipped into night as the small gathering sat around the cabin eating bowls of Millie’s concoction.

“Do you think we’re safe here?”  Darlene asked.

“Safer than we’ve been since we left Utopia.” Steve answered. “Everyone needs to get some rest.  I’m beat.”

He rolled the chair to one of the windows. “I’ll wake you at midnight, Zack.”

“No problem.”

Della helped Millie to the other lower bunk beds. Zack decided he wasn’t trying the top bunk and pulled the mattress from the top bunk on one of the bed to a place near a window.  Della took the bunk above Millie while Darlene and Penny made their way to the loft. Within a short time Steve could hear both Millie and Zack snoring.

The warmth of the cabin was unbearable. Finally, Steve opened the front door and rolled the wheelchair outside. The handgun rested in his lap. He looked out over the valley beyond and realized how high on the bluff they had driven. He could see a few lights and wondered if what he saw was fires or people running generators.

At midnight Zack stumbled through the opened door wiping sleep from his eyes. “All quiet?”

Steve nodded then answered. “Not much to see out there. I saw a few fires in the distance. There must be a blacktop about six miles north. I saw a few headlights heading west.”

“Get some rest, I got this? Use the bottom bunk. I opened the back windows and with this door open it’s not so hot. I’ll be out here.”

“Thanks.” Steve handed Zack the handgun. “Wake me or aim for the head and pull the trigger.”

“Got it.” Zack laid the gun next to him on the top step of the porch. “I’ll get you if I hear or see anything.”

Steve rolled inside and pulled himself into the bunk. He closed his eyes.

The sound of whispered voices woke Steve. Dust motes danced across the first rays of the sun shining through the opened back doors. The smell and sound of something cooking filled the little cabin. Steve threw his arm over his eyes and listened to the voices coming from the kitchen. His stomach rolled.

“Now, this canned meat is poor folk’s best friend. That garden out back looks to have been cared for last fall. Got volunteer vines up on the side of the shed. Might be something we could use.” Millie commented.

“Penny and I can look around and check it out.” Darlene volunteered.

“I figure to take the young man with me and show him how to set a few snares. I don’t know if we’ll catch much, but I know we don’t have food for more than three days.”

Zack chuckled. “Me? Trapping? Just call me Daniel Boone.”

Despite the warmth radiating from him, Steve slid out of the bed and onto the wheelchair. He rolled toward the back door. “Zack, can I roll this to the outhouse and shed?”

“I’ll go with you. You’ll need a little help.” Zack answered.

“Let’s see what’s in the shed while were out there.”

A few minutes later, Zack rolled the wheel chair at the door of the shed. The owner of the property had put up a shed and used another padlock to secure the door. Zack pulled the crowbar from his belt and performed the same procedure as before to pop open the lock. When he was done, he threw the door open. He gave a low whistle.

Inside the shed was ATV parked against one wall. Zack flicked on the LED light. He looked from one side of the shed to the other. He saw garden tools propped in the corner, some fishing gear, and a variety of hunting equipment. In the back corner was something covered by a tarp.

“We need to see what’s under there.” Steve commented. “But first, I think I need to go inside and lay down for a bit. I’m not feeling real well.”

Zack stepped behind the wheel chair and pushed it toward the cabin. “You don’t look so good man.”

“If we had enough supplies it would be a good place to rest up but we don’t. We can’t sit around and wait for my legs to heal.”

“I’ll check out the shed in a while.” Zack answered.

Brian led the group down the stairs to the exit and stopped at the door. “Billy and Paula go around to the passenger side. I’ll keep an eye on the driver’s side while Leon and Juan make sure Margo and Dale get in the back? Once you’re in the truck get to the roll bar and hang on. The minute I crank that engine every dead fuck within a ten blocks radius will be heading our way. We’ll just keep attracting attention so don’t lose that duffle bag. We’ll need that ammo.”

Brian passed the bag to Leon and he hiked it up on his well-muscled shoulder. “Got it covered, boss.”

Brian looked at each person in the party. “We’re crossing open ground so keep your eyes open. Move quickly and stay together.”

Billy, Juan, and Brian each hiked backpacks over their shoulders. Leon adjusted the gun bag and reached out to Margo. She reluctantly placed her hand in his. He gave a quick nod. “We got this, right.”

Margo tried to smile, but it looked more like a grimace.

Juan leaned toward Dale with a wide grin. “Keep up, hombre. I ain’t letting no dead fuck bite me in the ass, because you can’t keep up.”

Dale hiked up his drooping pants and tightened his grip on the table leg. “Fuck you.”

The group made their way down the dark stairway to the bottom floor of the building. Brian peeked through the small glass window at the top of the door and saw a nearly empty parking lot. He pushed on the door and eased it open slowly. Looking around one last time, he stepped out into the sunlight squinting at the glare. Once everyone was out of the building, he moved from the sidewalk to the asphalt of the parking lot one step at a time. The others followed close behind.

“Slow and easy, folks.” Brian whispered. “Quiet.”

Brian hurried across the parking lot with Paula and Billy close on his heels. Following them was Leon clinging to Margo’s arm. Juan with Dale in tow began lagging further behind with each step.

Dale gasped for breath. Juan slowed and motioned at the insurance salesman to move more quickly.

When Dale caught up to him, Juan whispered with a voice tinged with irritation. “Want another cigarette? Hurry the fuck up!”

Brian and the group got over ten yards before the first infected noticed them. He unlocked the doors with a push of the button on the key fob. “Move it, people!”

The click of the button sounded loud with the deafening quiet of the city. Billy, still holding Paula’s hand, veered off to the left when he saw the blink of parking lights on the truck.

An infected woman stumbled from behind a mini-van and headed for the group. Three more infected took notice and turned to make a bee-line across the parking lot toward them.

“They’re coming! We have to go back.” Margo shrieked.

“The door locked behind us. Run faster, woman.” Leon ordered just as Margo stumbled and pulled from his grasp.

She fell to her knees dropping the chair leg with a loud thud on the asphalt. Leon reached down, and yelled. “Get up and run!”

He took three quick steps toward the infected woman and swung his metal chair leg. The heavy metal made contact with the side of the infected woman’s head. A patch of scalp peeled off her head as it jerked to the side but she didn’t go down. Leon back stepped to take another swing only to stumble into Dale.

Juan seeing what was happening, side-stepped avoiding the tangle of legs when both men went down. He raised his metal bar and slammed it down on the infected woman’s head and she collapsed on top Leon’s legs. Juan reached down and jerked the body off Leon and pulled him to his feet.

“Come on amigo.”

Leon turned to Margo still crumpled on the asphalt and swung out with an open hand. He slapped the side of her face. “Shut up and get up or we’re leaving you.”

The slap silenced her screeching. Leon turned and pulled Dale to his feet. “Move it man!” Both men headed for the truck.

Juan grabbed Margo’s arm and pulled her to her feet then released her. She picked up the improvised weapon and ran after Leon, Dale and Juan toward the truck.

“In the truck, now!” Brian called out as he watched another infected approach.

The gray-fleshed man dressed in a shredded white shirt covered in dark splotches of dried blood snarled. The monster growled and reached toward Brian.

“Not likely,” Brian roared back as he kicked out and caved in the man’s knee. When he went down, a quick thrust of Brian’s knife into the eye socket put the monster down.

Billy got to the passenger side of the pickup and opened the door. He jerked the door open and ordered. “Get in and get over.”

While she scrambled into the cab, Billy turned to slam his table leg into the head of a blood and gore covered child monster.

Leon got to the truck and threw the canvas bag over the edge of the bed. He glanced around then stepped on the extended hub of the back wheel and vaulted into the truck. He turned just in time to see Juan push at Dale’s wide butt as he reached for the top of the bed.

Dale grunted and hung there unable to pull his own weight into the bed. Leon grabbed the back of his pants and hauled him into the truck bed and dropped him in the bed unceremoniously leaving him lay in a heap.

Brian intercepted another monster as it made its way around the front bumper of the truck. He stepped out and swung a table leg into monster’s legs. When the infected woman went down, he slammed the table leg down hard on her skull.

Juan jumped to the top of the wheel and climbed into the bed of the pickup.

“Don’t leave me…Help!” Margo slammed her hands against the side of the truck then reached up while trying to step up on the wheel.

Brian turned around and frowned. “Guys?”

“We got it.” Leon called out.

Brian climbed into the cab and behind the wheel while Leon and Juan each grabbed an arm and jerked Margo into the bed of the truck just and three more infected slammed against the back fender.

Juan pushed Margo toward the roll bar, while Leon pulled Dale to the front of the truck to lean against the cab. Brian cranked the engine and the big truck roared to life.

Billy slid open the window at the back of the cab. “Good to go back there?” He called out.

Leon slammed a hand on the hood. “Get us out of here. We’re drawing a crowd.”

Brian stomped the gas and the truck bowled over three infected. The cluster of infected, pounding at the side of the truck bed, were quickly left behind. Margo yelped in surprised and Leon slid an arm around her waist while she grabbed the roll bar.

Juan laughed and swung a chair leg at the head of an infected man with dreadlock as they drove past. The impact crushed the side of the man’s head and sent him reeling away.

“Home run!” Juan laughed.

Della tapped on the door of Steve’s motel room still dressed in an oversized t-shirt and boxers.

“Military is here.”  Della announced from outside the door. “You have to see this.”

“Calm down, give me a minute.”  Steve slid into the wheel chair and rolled to the door and opened it. He tried to ignore her shapely dark legs and tried to concentrate on what she was saying.   He looked toward the sound of heavy trucks and roaring engines.

“I think we need to be careful.” Announced.

“What do you mean?  It’s soldiers.”  Della argued.

“Why here?”  He pulled her inside and called over his shoulder at Zack.  “Up and at ‘em, Zack.”

Steve pulled the curtains closed and he turned to Della.  “This is out in the middle of nowhere.  Why would the military send troops here?”

Della looked puzzled.  “Well, I don’t know.”

“Exactly.  This small community is not strategic in any way at all.  Following that train of thought, I’m worried they’re not under orders.  If that’s the case, they’re not here for the benefit of this community.”

Zack sat up and looked around.  His eyes found Steve and Della and chuckled.  “Got some good looking legs there, Ms Della.”

Della rolled her eyes.  “So, what are you saying?”

“I think we need to be careful until we know what’s going on with the military.”  Steve advised as he let Della out the door.

They all dressed and made their way to the school for breakfast.  After a scowl from Della, Steve opted not using his prosthetics.  The wheelchair caused a few interested glances from the new arrivals in uniform.  The community was a buzz of activity and rife with speculation about the arrival of the military.

From gossip outside the cafeteria, they learned the officer leading the unit had insisted on a meeting with the city council at the city hall.  The impromptu meeting was organized and now the town civilian authorities were behind doors with the officer in charge. The rest of the soldiers looked around as if expecting trouble. Steve noticed the military vehicles were parked in a defensive formation around the town hall intensifying his unease.

Della, Steve, and Zack entered the cafeteria and got trays.  Once settled at a table and eating, they noticed soldiers take up posts at each of the exits.  They ate quickly keeping watch around the room.

“Something doesn’t feel right.”  Della announced.

“You’re right.  Let’s get outta here.” Steve backed his chair from table and headed for the door with both Della and Zack in tow.

As they walked past the table where Sandy was sitting with the two young women she had been staying with, Della stopped.  “We’re meeting at the motel,”  She glanced around pointedly.  “to discuss the latest development.”

“No thanks.  It doesn’t matter what you have going on.  I’m staying here.  I have friends now.  It’s safe.  No way would I even consider leaving here.”  Sandy answered.

Della cringed at the tirade.  “Please keep your voice down.”

“Fine.”  Sandy looked annoyed.  “I have no intentions of going anywhere until the soldiers say I can go home.  End of story.  I’m not your responsibility and you can’t make me do anything I don’t want to.”

Della squared her shoulders.  “That’s fine, Sandy.  If you change your mind, just come see us, sooner rather than later.”  She hurried after Steve and Zack standing at the door.

As she approached she caught the ongoing conversation.

Steve glared at the soldier stationed at the door.  “Excuse me?  What do you mean we have to stay here?”

“The Major’s request.”  The soldier answered. “He’d like everyone to stick around and be available when he finishes his meeting with the powers that be.  He plans on a formal announcement at eleven this morning.”

Steve looked annoyed.  “I’ll tell you what.  I need to rest.  We had a bad time getting here.  Della is my nurse and Zack, my man Friday.  Are you holding a disabled veteran prisoner?”

“Of course not, sir.” The soldier looked uncomfortable.

“We’ll come back shortly before eleven.”

The soldier looked uncomfortable but finally agreed. “Be back before eleven or it will be my ass.”

Della started to speak as they walk out of the building, but Steve held up his hand.

At the motel, they heard harried voices through the open window.

“Why?”  Millie asked.

“We have to get outta here.  They came into the clinic and gathered everyone’s keys for the pharmacy. I was in the back room doing inventory when they came in.  They were talking about going from house to house to confiscate all medications and taking control of ALL resources, food, gas, everything.  I emptied all of the heart meds you need in my pocket then snuck out.” Darlene answered.

“Oh my.”  Millie responded. “You’re going to get in trouble.”

“No.  We’re leaving.”  Ordered Darlene from the bathroom. “Penny put all your clothes in the plastic bag.”

Steve rolled through the door and raised his voice.  “Darlene? Could we talk for a minute?”

“Just a minute.”  She called out.

He whispered to Della.  “Start packing.”

He turned to Zack. “Where is the truck?”

“Out back.  I put it there to get it out of the afternoon sun since we still have some of our supplies in it.”

“Good.  Get out there and load supplies when Della passes our stuff out the back window. I’ll gather our clothes and do the same.” Steve reached for his prosthetics in the bag at the back of the chair.  He slid the right prosthetic on the stump of his lower leg.

Darlene walked up to Steve and glanced over his should out to the courtyard.  She looked even more worried when she saw the soldiers crossing the road outside the town hall.

“I’ve only got a minute.”

“We’re leaving too.  Do you have gas?”  Steve asked.

“Only a quarter of a tank, but we can’t stay.” She dipped her hand into her pocket and spilled hundreds of small white pills into a large brown plastic bottle.

“I heard what you said.”  Steve responded.  “I think you have a good grasp of what’s going to happen.  We’re leaving too. The truck is diesel and an extended cab so we have room your family.”

“I’m not leaving Millie.”  Darlene protested.

“I wouldn’t think of it.”  Steve answered.

Pack up and drop your things through the back window.  Zack is in back and will load it into the pickup.  As soon as we’re ready, we’re loading up and leaving.  Leave a few odd pieces of clothing around so if someone comes along and looks in the room it doesn’t look like your planning on leaving.”

“We have to hurry.  They plan on confiscating all the guns at this big meeting.”  When Steve nodded, she disappeared back into her and Millie’s room.

He stood up from the chair and walked into the motel room and loaded up all the weapons in a canvas bag and passed it through the window.  Just as he turned to reach for a pair of pants to add to bag on his lap a voice called out.

“Sir? It’s almost eleven and you folks need to get to the square for the meeting.”

Steve turned.  “No problem, soldier.  I’m just finishing up a little housekeeping. Living in a motel room is not ideal for sure.” He grinned.

“Not my problem.  Get the two women and fat kid and get moving.”

“Got it.  We’ll be right there.”

The soldier moved from door to door and made the same speech then moved to the back of the building to ensure the residents move out.

All the able bodied residents moved more quickly and when the soldier saw Steve, again in the wheel chair and old black woman were headed in the right direction with their caregivers, he walked away.  Darlene held Penny’s hand and joined Steve’s group.  Steve let Millie set the pace leaving them falling farther and farther behind the hundreds of folks gathering at the town hall.  He stopped everyone at the edge of the square as far from the gathering as possible.

Two strutting military men stood on the top steps of the town hall along with Tony and half a dozen civilian.  Tony looked shell shocked.  He stole glances at the Major as if he were looking at a rattlesnake ready to strike.  The other civilians looked no easier at being in the company of the military.

Della leaned down to whisper to Steve. “This doesn’t look good.”

Steve got out of the chair and gentle guided Millie into the wheelchair.  Together the group of six began to ease back from the gathering into the shadow of a big spreading oak.  The soldiers had gravitated toward the front of the gather of nearly three hundred people gathered.

The Major stepped up to a portable public address system. “The President of the United States has imposed congressionally authorized martial law for the duration of this crisis. The authorizing act allows the President to suspend habeas corpus throughout the entire United States.

There have been instances of the use of the military law within the borders of the United States, such as during the civil rights crises in the 50’s. As of this enactment, there will be no distinction between martial law and military justice administered by the military and as such takes precedence and all civil courts will cease to function for the duration of this crisis.

Guards will be posted throughout the community, and all assets will be consolidated for appropriate redistribution by the military and to discourage hoarding. The assets to be collected by this order will include all fuel, food stock, liquors, medications, weapons and ammunition to ensure proper distribution.  Military personnel and/or military authorized individuals will take any and all actions to ensure infected individuals do not enter the secure perimeters.

Work details will be established and everyone, I repeat, everyone will be assigned to a work detail.  There will be no exceptions if you don’t work folks, you will not be eating.”

Tony jumped up leaned over and said something at the Major and his Captain.  The big black man’s arm shot out and he slammed a handgun against the side of Tony’s head.

Pandemonium erupted on the front steps of the town hall.  Other members of the city council rushed to Tony’s side.  Soldiers swarmed around the crowd and shots were fired.

“Go now.”  Steve whispered.

The audience either pulled back from the altercation or surged forward to protest.

Della grabbed the handles of the wheel chair where Millie had settled and Darlene picked up Penny.  They quickly made a beeline for the corner of the motel building.  Two more shots were fired, but Steve’s band of escapees kept moving away from the fighting that suddenly erupted.

They got to the side of the building and all were out of breath except Millie and Penny.

“Run away! Run away!” Penny giggled.

Steve turned to Zack.  “Get them in the truck.”

Zack grabbed the handles of the wheel chair from Della.  “Go. I got this.”

Steve watched as the twenty or so soldiers herded the city council toward the door to the City Hall.  Half a dozen burly townsmen raced toward the commotion and more shots rang out.  Two men fell and the crowd panicked and scattered in all directions.

Steve hurried around the building to the truck and struggled into the seat.  “Go! Now!”

Zack slammed the truck into gear and stomped on the gas.  He made the first left and headed back down the street toward the bridge.

When the truck got to the metal barrier at the bridge, Ollie stepped out of the nearby tent and waved.  “What’s going on?  Where are you folks headed?”  He asked with a worried look.  “What are the shots in town?”

Steve answered.  “The soldiers just caused a riot in front of city hall.  Two people went down.  They’re claiming martial law gives them the right to confiscate food, meds and weapons.  We have no intentions of staying and giving up our guns.”

“What’ve you got in back?”  Ollie asked.

Just what we came with.”

“Son-of-a-bitch!”  Ollie swore as he looked at the people around him.  “How bad is it?”

Steve shrugged.  “They could have already killed two people.”  He answered then asked.  “Will you open the gate and let us go?”

“No reason not to.”  He waved at the men standing look out.  “Open the gate.”

Ollie looked into the back seat.  Looks like you picked up a few folks.  What about that young girl that came in with you?”

“She found some friends and was determined to stay.”  Steve shrugged. “Will you watch out for her?  She’s just a kid.”

The gate swung open. “I’ll keep an eye on her.”  Ollie stepped back and waved them toward the gate. “Thanks for the head’s up. You folks be safe.”

Steve hesitated then added. “If this falls apart, head for Pine Canyon in the Guadalupe National Park.”

Ollie gave a quick nod and waved the truck on.  Zack stepped on the accelerator and Steve looked in the side mirror as they drove through the gate to see Ollie heading toward his truck as the gates closed.

Della slid over and pulled Jimmy from where he rested on an unconscious Sandy. Sandy’s clothes were covered in blood but it didn’t take long to realize it was from a wounded Jimmy. Blood ran in rivulets from his neck. Della ignored Sandy and pressed a rag to Jimmy’s neck.  He moaned softly.

Still pressing her right hand against the wound, she jerked the door open with her left. She slid out, pulling Jimmy after her as she stepped from the vehicle.

“I got this.” Zack slid out the open driver’s door and reached for Jimmy.

Della stepped aside as Zack grabbed Jimmy under his arms. He gently eased him from the truck seat. Della stumbled along still pressing the rag against his neck as Zack made his way across the road. They made their way to a huge oak tree and laid him against the trunk.

Steve climbed from the front passenger seat and jerked the second door open. With Della and Zack focused on Jimmy, he concentrated at Sandy. She lay slumped across the back seat unmoving. Blood covered her left shoulder, neck, and the back of her head.

After a quick examination, he realized she had no wound to account for all the blood. He laid two fingers on her neck. The beating beneath the fingertips was strong and steady. He leaned her back against the seat and saw the gentle rise and fall of her chest. The middle of her forehead had a golf ball size knot that was growing darker as he watched.

Steve left Sandy stretched out on the seat and hurried around the truck as quickly as the blades allowed him after grabbing the backpack with first aid supplies.

When he got to the trio under the tree he stumbled to a halt. It was bad. Della’s hand was pressed to Jimmy’s neck while the blood oozed through the rag and spilled between her fingers.

Steve fell to his knees and pulled at the zipper of the bag. He pulled a package from the bag and tore it open. He pulled Della’s hand away and quickly pressed the compression dressing to the wound then pressed her hand back in place. When she looked back at him tears streamed down her cheeks.

Jimmy moaned and his eyes fluttered open. “Hurts….” He whimpered.

Steve forced a smile. “Easy kid.”

Steve turned to Zack. “Get a couple bottles of water, man.”

Zack lumbered toward the truck, his shoulders slumped in defeat.

“Is it as bad as I think?” Della whispered.

Steve nodded. “It nicked the carotid. There’s nothing we can do.”

Zack reappeared with bottles of water in hand. “Sandy’s waking up.”

Steve took the bottles. “Keep an eye on her. We got this.”

Bandages soaked through nearly as fast as they changed them at the side of Jimmy’s neck. Steve pulled two more compression bandages from the bag, opened the packaging and exchanged the soaked one for two clean ones.

Jimmy sighed. “Am I dying?”

Steve nodded then whispered. “I’m sorry.”

“Well, fuck.” Jimmy whispered as his eyes closed. A moment later, his eyes opened with a look of terror. He grabbed at Steve’s hand. “I don’t want to turn into a monster.”

“You won’t,” Steve answered.

Zack walked back to the old oak tree. Along with Della and Steve, he watched Jimmy’s eyes lose focus and his face relaxed. Zack cleared his throat twice then gave up as tears spilled from his eyes. He cried quietly. Della sobbed as she brushed hair from Jimmy’s face.

“I’m sorry, sweetie.” She whispered. “I wish I could do more.”

Jimmy’s chest rose and fell more slowly as the color faded from his face. It rose one last time then his whole body relaxed and the tension in his face disappeared.

Steve reached to Della’s hands and pulled them from the blood-soaked bandages. She leaned back and watched as he used the bottles of water to wash the blood from her hands. When he was done, she took the dampened towel and wiped blood from Jimmy’s face, her dark skin accentuating the paleness of his skin.

Della whispered. “I feel like I’ve lost a child.”

Steve swallowed hard. “So do I.”

Zack stood behind them with tears glistening on his round cheeks. “We’ve been friends since sixth grade. When we were kids, his mom told me she knew he’d be safe with me.” Zack snuffled. “I let her down.”

“No, you didn’t, Zack. You did everything you could to keep him safe. We all would have died at the center if it hadn’t been for you.” Della said.

Steve nodded. “There will be paybacks…I promise, if we come across the rest of that bunch, they’re dead.”

A distant moan interrupted and Della jumped to her feet. “Oh God, I forgot about Sandy.”

Steve looked up and Zack pulled him to standing and let him get balanced on the blades.

“Is she going to be alright? She has a really big goose egg on her forehead.” Zack picked up the backpack and pulled the zipper closed.

Steve added. “She was unconscious so she could have a concussion. It’s hard to tell. We need to keep her awake for a while when she comes around.”

By the time Steve got to the truck, Della had Sandy sitting up. Digging around behind the back seat, she found a roll of paper towels. She poured water on the paper and began wiping at the blood covering Sandy’s neck and side of her face. Steve reached behind the back seat and retrieved a faded t-shirt that had seen better days, but looked clean. Della pulled Sandy’s blood soaked shirt off, finished cleaning her as much as she could then pulled the clean shirt over her head.

“My head.” Sandy whimpered. She reached up to feel the knot above her left eye. “I think I feel sick.”

Della leaned her out of the truck and the remnants of a meal of energy bar and water spilled into the grass.

“Look y’all!” Zack called out suddenly.

Steve looked back down the road to where Zack pointed at a distant plume of dust.

Steve called out. “Come on Zack. We have to go!”

“We can’t leave Jimmy!” Zack protested. “I can’t leave him.”

Steve grabbed a blanket from behind the seat and hurried to Zack. Together, they wrapped Jimmy into a cocoon of army green wool. Zack leaned down and pulled his friend into his arms and hurried to the back of the truck. He laid the body gently in the bed of the truck and raced around the back of the truck to the driver’s side. He got behind the wheel while Steve climbed in the passenger door. Della buckled Sandy and herself into the back seat.

“Go! I see them coming!” Della called out.

Zack turned the key and the motor roared to life. He slammed his foot on the accelerator and they sped down the road with no real destination in mind. Zack made random turns until Steve finally pointed to a cross road at the base of the steep hill they had just crested.

“Slow down,” Steve ordered. “It will take them a few minutes to get here and I got an idea.”

They could see multiple vehicles ahead had been abandoned on either side of the road. One of the vehicles was a Department of Public Safety vehicle.

“What are we doing?” Zack asked.

Steve’s mouth turned up in a lopsided smile. “Paybacks. Stop by the DPS unit.”

“Okay. Then what?”

Steve used the drive time it took to get to the DPS vehicle to outline his plan. With tire iron in hand, he climbed out of the truck and walked to the black and white vehicle. He quickly realized the officer sat slumped into the steering wheel. A head shot had taken the officer out shattering both driver and passenger windows. It looked like a vehicle had pulled up and either the driver or passenger pointed a gun and fired.

Steve looked into the front seat and saw the officer’s service belt and revolver were gone. The service shotgun was no longer in the rack under the dash. At seeing that, Steve still couldn’t imagine anyone taking the time to remove the spike strip from the trunk so he reached inside the door and popped the trunk. He strode back of the unit and smiled when he saw the trunk had not been disturbed.

The officer’s trunk was a study in organization. It included two plastic totes with file folders for forms and papers, a tool box, several items to use for road side assistance in a canvas bag. In addition to the two spike strips and a large plastic gun case.

Steve leaned over and flipped the clasps and grinned. Inside was nestled a scoped rifle and several boxes of ammunition for the rifle. He left the rifle and other supplies for the time being and pulled both spike strips from the trunk. Tucking the tire iron in his waistband, he tossed several items from the trunk into the canvas bag and picked up both spike strips and headed up the hill where Della and Zack were finishing moving cars as he had directed.

Two vehicles were pulled to the center of the road with their front bumpers meeting in the middle of the road. Zack grabbed one of the spike strips from Steve then lumbered after him as he made his way around the blockade.

As Steve lurched past Della, he called out. “Head down the hill and open some of the car doors. Make sure it’s safe first. If no one’s inside, then toss the contents around. Make a big show. We want the guys in the truck as distracted as possible so they don’t see the spike strips.”

Della took off toward the cluster of vehicles after checking on Sandy.

Steve rolled the first spike strip across the road and could clearly see the zigzag pattern of spikes. He motioned for Zack to roll out the second strip. He looked across the road and realized the truck driver would have to be blind or extremely distracted to not notice the dark strip of spikes lying across the asphalt.

“Will they see the strips?” Zack asked.

“That’s the reason for tossing things around.” Steve answered. He pointed at one of the vehicles and continued. “There’s a propane tank in that blue pickup. Get it would you? I’ve got bungees from the unit. We’re anchoring it between the bumpers and if they hit the strip full speed, there’s a good chance they’ll slam into the cars and hopefully the tank will go boom.” Steve grinned.

Zack brought back the tank and helped mount it between the two vehicles. When they were done, they got back in the truck and headed down the hill.

They studied Della’s handiwork as they headed down the hill and saw what looked like a woman standing at an open car door. As they got closer, Zack’s eyes got big and Steve snorted.

“I’ll be damned.” Steve snorted.

A life-sized plastic doll had been taped to a car door with duct tape. The plastic arm extended up as if waving. Della had pulled a glittering sequined shirt over the doll’s upper body and now the dime-sized sequins on the shirt sparkled in the sun and light breeze.

“Now that’s something you don’t see every day,” Zack noted.

He slowed the truck and Della climbed in next to Sandy. She glanced over her shoulder and commented. “I’ll never stop being amazed at the stupidity of people. What kind of person takes a blow up sex doll with them when they’re running for their lives?”

Steve smirked. “It works for us.”

Della leaned over Sandy to check on her. She was slumped against the window and dozing.

“She shouldn’t be sleeping.” Della commented as she attempted to rouse Sandy. Della dampened a rag and wiped at Sandy’s face.

Zack stopped the truck at the side of police car and Steve stepped out to retrieve the rifle and filled the canvas bag with additional salvageable goods from the trunk. When he was back in the truck, he pointed to a side road at the base of the hill.

Zack drove down the hill and made the turn. When he had gotten far enough from the intersection to be hidden from the highway by a stand of trees, Steve told him to stop again.

“Stay here and keep an eye out. If you hear that truck make it around the road block or you see anyone else besides me heading through those trees, take off and don’t come back.”

He scratched around and retrieved a plastic bag from the floor then dropped two bottles of water and a couple energy bars inside. He picked up the plastic gun case and opened the door.

“Where are you going?”

“I’m making sure these people don’t go after anyone else.”

Steve grabbed the strap of the rifle and slid from the passenger seat of the pickup. He pulled the rifle strap over his shoulder. “Don’t stick around if you see anyone else besides me heading this way.”

Zack nodded. “Got it, man.”

Della reached out. “You should let me go with you.”

“No.” Steve stepped away. “I have to do this. You have to take care of the kids.”

Steve looked back without smiling. Attempting a terminator impersonation, he answered. “I’ll be back.”

Della forced a smile while Zack shook his head and laughed.

“That was really bad, man,” Zack commented.

Steve gave them a careless wave then turned and walked toward the wooded grove overlooking the trap. He maneuvered carefully through the brush and briars until he found a spot he had spotted earlier. It was a gentle rise crested with a cluster of boulders. He laid the rifle on the biggest rock and eased onto a smaller rock behind it. He dropped the plastic bag next to his leg. He opened a bottle of water and drank most of the bottle.

He was tired. The stump of his right knee hurt like hell. He wanted to pull the thermoplastic cup and silicone sleeve from the tender flesh, but he didn’t dare. If his little trap failed to stop the men chasing them, he had to be able to move quickly.

The sound of an engine in the distance interrupted his silent musing. Steve rose and looked toward the hill in the distance. The big truck with the roll bar and lights crested the hill.

The vehicle had been jacked up to allow room for the massive oversized wheels with thick tread, mud tires. The engine screamed as the truck vaulted over a distant hill with the tires leaving the road for a heartbeat.

Steve raised the scoped rifle to his eye and watched as the vehicle landed hard and the sound of its approach grew louder. He waited for the truck to climb the last hill before the trap. The truck raced to the top, caught air then landed with a bone-jarring thud, the engine screaming in protest. The driver struggled to control the vehicle but didn’t let up on the gas.

Steve aimed at the driver then moved the barrel to lead his target. He took a breath then let the air out and squeezed the trigger. The explosion of the shot was all but obliterated by the roar of the truck engine when the driver slumped forward.

Steve watched through the scope as the passenger jumped into action reaching the stirring wheel struggling to get control of the truck. The front tires hit the spike strips. Tires exploded. The vehicle swerved to the left and the tires lost any semblance of traction.

The vehicle tipped and began to roll. The two men in the bed clinging to the massive roll bar sailed over the side of the truck then disappeared under the crush of metal as the massive machine made the first rotation.

The second rotation took the truck into the two cars with the propane tank. The resulting explosion was deafening. A billowing mushroom of flames rose up from the twisted metal. One by one the gas tanks of each vehicle succumb to the heat and exploded. Within seconds, the entire trio of vehicles burst into flames. Debris fell from the sky all around the crash site.

Steve pushed himself onto his blades. He picked up the bag and rifle. He turned to walk back to the truck where Della and Zack waited. He grimaced with each step. By the time he got within site of the truck, he was using the rifle to support his weight.

Zack jumped from the truck and raced to Steve’s side. He grabbed the bag and pulled the rifle from his hand. He slid his shoulder under Steve’s arm and took the weight off his right leg. They stumbled back to the vehicle. Della opened the passenger door and Zack eased Steve inside.

“How bad is it?” Della asked.

Steve grimaced as he eased the cuff from the stump. “Bad enough.”

Della pulled the blood filled silicone sock from the stump. The skin across the stumps was raw and angry red. Pressure sores had formed and opened. Blood seeped from the open eruptions.

“Oh my God.” She whispered.

“I guess it’s a little worse than I thought.” Steve rubbed at the skin above the stump.

Della pulled at the second prosthetic. When it was also removed she found the skin was red and angry, but not yet blistered or broken. “Well, at least it’s not as bad as the right leg.”

“We have to get out of here,” Steve advised.

“After I clean and bandage your leg,” Della replied as she pulled the canvas bag from the back seat. “And you will be not using the blades for a while.

“Is he going to be okay?” Sandy asked.

Della nodded. “He’ll be fine.”

She finished dressing the wound then allowed Steve to turn around in the truck seat. She poured water into the silicone sock and rinsed the blood from it. She wiped both out with alcohol wipes from the first aid kit. When she was finished she picked up the blades and handed them to Sandy to store on the floor in the back seat. She closed up the bag and passed it back as well.

“Zack, get behind the wheel. We need to find a place to hide out for a few days.” Steve ordered.

Della climbed in the back seat and slammed the door. “I second that.” She passed Steve two white pills from the medical kit.

Zack turned the extended-cab pickup around and got back on the main road. He saw a sign advertised Utopia as only twenty miles ahead. “We’re heading to Utopia? It’s pretty far off the beaten path.”

Steve downed a couple Tylenol. “Let’s see what it looks like.”


“They won’t stop looking for us,” Jimmy whispered. “They killed those people in the store when the old man couldn’t or wouldn’t tell them which direction we went. They said you shot someone at the barn.”

“Damn.” Steve responded as he steered the vehicle through a dry creek crossing. “I don’t suppose pleading it was an accident would help.”

Zack smirked. “They don’t look like the understanding type.”

Steve slowed the van and turned off the motor. He opened his window and leaned his head outside. After a moment, he leaned back in the seat.

“Did you hear that?” Steve asked.

Della whispered. “I think I hear a motor in the distance. I can’t say for sure.”

Steve cranked the engine and slammed the van back in gear. He accelerated too quickly and the van jerked forward slamming the riders back in their seats. By the time they righted themselves from the sideways momentum, they were racing down the road again.

Della grabbed at her seat belt with trembling hands. She snapped it into place then glanced over her shoulder to the trio in the back seats. They bounced and jerked from side to side as they grasped at whatever they could find to hold on to.

“Steve! You’re going to kill us if you go off the road driving this fast.”

“Buckle up! If they catch us, we’ll be in a lot worse shape.” He answered. “I heard a truck motor.”

The gravel road disappeared and the van traveled a path overgrown with more patches of weeds with each passing fence post. Steve reduced the speed as the path grew rougher with deep washes in the hard-packed dirt hidden by the vegetation.

When the path opened up, Steve accelerated and they were racing down the road at over forty miles an hour. Brush and overhanging limbs slapped against the sides of the van. They hurled along for nearly a quarter mile when they raced around a curve in the road and a massive barrier of green appeared. Vegetation covered the middle of the road. Steve braked, but it wasn’t quick enough.

The front of the van was air-born for a fraction of a second then hit a solid wall on the distant side of a massive wash in the road. The van landed with a shuddering crash that could be felt through the undercarriage and threw belted occupants toward the front seat.

The steering wheel jerked from Steve’s hands while the back end bounced and tossed the occupants again. The grill hit the opposite rim of the crater and came down so hard the axle collapsed with the front end settling on bent wheels and flattened tires.

Steve jerked the accelerator lever back and slammed the van in park. He turned off the motor and slammed both hands against the steering wheel. The van grew quiet and the only sound was heavy breathing and whimpers from the back seat.

“Everyone okay?” Steve asked.

Zack looked around the back of the van then answered. “We’re fine back here.” He began righting crates of food and supplies. “Is the van drivable? I heard something that didn’t sound good.”

“No. We’re walking until we get another vehicle. Get what we can carry together. Throw out the crap in that canvas bag and that backpack, put food and water in them.”

Della asked. “We’re walking?”

“No choice. The van’s toast.” Steve answered.

“Then let’s get out of here, people.” Della sighed.

Zack grabbed the duffle and began stuffing food into the bag.

Steve opened the glove box and retrieved two boxes of ammo and a spare magazine from inside. He pulled a jacket from the back of his seat and dropped the ammo in the pockets and zipped them closed. He tied the arms around his waist.

“Where are we going?” Jimmy asked as he slid the backpack on his shoulder.

Steve answered. “Back the way we came. We don’t know where this road comes out on the other end. I’m hoping they left at least one of the vehicles at the store we can take. For now, we have a long walk. With a little luck, they split up and we will only have the occupants of one vehicle to deal with at a time.”

Della waited for Steve to exit the van. She picked up two filled plastic bags and stepped to the ground. “What happens when we meet those rednecks? You know it’s going to go bad for all of us.” She whispered.

“We hide,” Steve answered. “We hear a vehicle, we hide. Until then, we move as fast as we can. I figure we traveled at least five miles from the gas station.”

Steve called Jimmy and Zack to his side. “Head down the road past the van and go into the woods about a hundred yards down the road. Drop some trash and stomp around then head back this way as quick as you can. Try to make it look like we all went that way and don’t step in bare dirt coming back. You have five minutes to catch up.”

Both young men nodded then took off.

Della and Sandy began walking back the way they had come. Steve soon passed them and set an easy pace until the boys caught up. They managed two miles in less than twenty minutes. By the third mile, all were struggling to keep up the pace Steve set.

Sandy gasped. “I can’t go on like this.”

“Five minutes rest.” Steve relented. “Drink plenty of water while you can.”

Everyone pulled plastic water bottles from bags and gulped the contents. When Jimmy went to toss his bottle in the grass Steve stopped him. “We may need the bottle later. Put them back in the bags. We don’t want to leave a trail for the rednecks to follow.”

Sandy Wandered away to pee. She found a bush and squatted behind it. She grumbled as she swatted at bugs flying around her. “Fucking mosquitoes.”

She pulled up her pants and straightened her clothes. When she headed back toward the others she paused to cock her head. She turned back toward the distant sound for a moment then raced back to the gathering.

“I hear a truck!”

Steve glanced toward the road. “Move it, people! Let’s go!”

He set a grueling pace for about two minutes then stopped at the edge of the road near a cluster of bushes under a rock outcropping. He stepped into the shadows then waved the others toward it.

“Hurry.” He ordered as he broke a branch from the back of a scrub and dusted at their footprints in the dirt at the edge of the road. “Break off some branches from the back and pass them up to me.”

Della hustled the trio under the outcropping, guiding them deeper into the shadows of the overhang. The roar of the heavy-duty truck engine grew louder and closer.

Zack and Jimmy snapped two thumb-sized branches with fans of leaves. They passed the foliage back to Della and she passed them to Steve. He backed into the gloom brushing at the dust and dirt. He planted the branch in the dirt at the opening and backed from the branch and squatted on one knee.

Steve pulled his handgun and pointed it toward the road and sound of the big engine. Everyone receded deeper into the shadows as the sound grew louder.

“Quiet, everyone!” Steve whispered.

The roar of the truck filled the afternoon silence. The vehicle raced toward them filling the air with the angry growl of a motor being pushed hard. The truck rolled down the road at an alarming speed. Everyone cringed at the sight.

The flat-black, heavy-duty pickup with jacked-up body and massive tires sporting wide treads sported a heavy duty brush guard and six-inch roll bar. Four mounted lights rose above the cab. Two men clung to the roll bar, holding rifles on their hips as they shouted at the man driving the truck. The roar of the engine and shouts grew more distinct. Steve melted back into the shadows as the vehicle raced by. They waited for a full minute before Steve pushed the brush aside. He stepped to the road and motioned the others to follow.

“Now! We have to get to the intersection before they come back. Hopefully, it will take them a while to figure out the trail is bogus.”

Steve took off jogging again with everyone following. No one protested the pace. Another twenty minutes they made it to the placed Zack and Jimmy had slipped down the hill to the gas station.  After a moment of hesitation, Steve raced over the side.  The rest followed. Everyone was gasping for breath and dripping wet with perspiration when they stumbled into the parking lot.

The truck and car seen earlier still sat in the lot undisturbed. Three bodies lay at the front of the truck. Zack ran to the extended cab truck.

“Door open, but keys are not here!” He called out.

Jimmy tried the door handle on the Oldsmobile eighty-eight. The door wouldn’t open. “Nothing here!”

Della went to the younger of the two men pressed her fingertips against the front right pocket of the man’s jeans. She looked up and shook her head then moved to the left pocket and again felt nothing. In frustration, she worked her fingers into each of the pockets and spilled the contents to the ground. She turned the man to his side to check his back pockets and saw the key ring clip anchored to his belt loop over his right back pocket. She unclipped the keys and raced toward the red truck.

“In everyone!” Steve yelled then turned to Della. “Can you drive it?”

Della reached for the back door as an answer.

Zack laughed. “I got this! I always wanted a big-ass truck like this.”

They threw the bags in the back and Steve got in front while Sandy and Jimmy followed Della into the back seat.

Zack settled in the driver’s seat and Della passed him the keys. He stuck the key in the ignition and turned it. He laughed nervously. “Really, I’ve always wanted one of these.”

The first shot took out the side mirror on the driver side and shattered the glass and plastic.

Screams filled the cab as Steve pulled the gas nozzle from the red truck, locked it open and raced to the cab and jumped in.  He yelled. “Drive!”

Zack thumped the truck in reverse and stomped the gas. He slammed on the breaks as another shot rang out. The back glass shattered with an explosion of glass. Jimmy, Sandy and Della were thrown to the right with bone-jarring crash.

“Stay down!” Steve ordered.

He struggled to his knees in the passenger seat and leaned out the window. He clung to the doorframe and pointed the handgun back at the huge black truck racing toward them. He fired three quick shots and the truck swerved.

Zack slammed the truck into drive and pressed his foot to the floor. The truck swerved around the fueling island and fishtailed onto the gravel and broken asphalt.

More shots pinged off the top of the cab. Steve leaned out the window with the next swerve of the truck. Della grabbed his belt as he overbalanced and nearly fell out the window.

Once righted, Steve leaned back out of the window to take another shot. Della clung to his belt while Jimmy and Sandy remained slumped across the back seat.

Zack righted the vehicle and slammed his foot down on the gas. The truck’s Hemi kicked in and the vehicle raced toward the blacktop. The pursuers came around the corner of the building and raced at them.

Steve took a final shot at the asphalt next to the fueling island just as the black truck raced by. The black truck exploded. The fire billowed out like a living creature to engulf the men in the bed of the truck. Screams from both men could be heard as they were enveloped in the flames.

The driver and passenger screamed as the flames roared surrounded the cab engulfing the passengers and into the open windows of the cab. Steve knew the fire would sear the skin from their faces and hair from their heads. The vehicle hit the second pump and the truck, pump-island and station went up in a mushroom of flames and billowing black smoke. The truck rolled from the funeral pyre with the charred remains still clinging to the structure behind the cab.

Zack clutched the steering wheel and eased off on the gas as he witnessed the devastation in the rearview mirror. He forced breath from his lungs and glanced toward Steve as he settled back into his seat. Della released Steve’s belt and tried to ease back on the seat, but Jimmy and Sandy still lay behind her.

“Okay, you two. You can sit up now.” Della ordered.

When neither one moved, Della looked down and gasped. “Oh God! Stop the truck. The kids are hurt!”

Zack slammed on the breaks. Steve opened the door and someone moaned softly.

“Why were they shooting at us?” Sandy demanded.

“Cause they’re assholes,” Jimmy answered. “Now shut up. You almost got us killed.”

“You heard that scream last night.” Zack added. “My guess is, they killed that woman and are afraid we saw something.”

Della turned back to the back seats. “Please. Just be quiet. We’re not out of this yet.”

Steve navigated the back road driving as fast as he could on the narrow-asphalt highway. All the while, he watched the mirrors for signs of pursuers. His heart hammered with the knowledge one gun could not protect them from three or four well-armed men bent of their destruction. He steered the van through a devastated community turned to the charred rubble of a strip center before he pulled the vehicle behind the remains of a large metal building.

“I think we’re safe now.” Steve turned off the motor. The only sound was the ticking of the cooling engine. He rolled down the window and the smell of charred wood wafted on a gentle breeze.

Jimmy reached behind the seat to scratch through supplies. He handed everyone a drink and a power bar.

“It’s a good thing we didn’t take a lot out of the van,” Jimmy commented.

“We would have lost a lot more than a few pieces of bedding, that’s for sure.” Della agreed.

“We lost a lot. We lost Martha.” Sandy said. “How can you act like nothing happened?”

Steve turned around. “I know what happened to Martha was upsetting, Sandy, but you almost got us killed.”

Sandy protested. “We just left her hanging in that barn.”

“We had no choice.” Della responded. “I’m afraid we’ll see a lot of terrible things just trying to survive. We live in a dangerous world now.”

Sandy retorted. “You mean you don’t care if one of us dies?”

Steve sighed. “No one is saying that. If we didn’t care, we would have left you outside the closet door back at the center. I’m sorry Martha’s gone, but we can’t change what’s been done. She made that choice. All we can do is try to survive.”

“Maybe there are FEMA shelters out there. We should try to find one.” Jimmy interjected.

“Wherever we go, we need weapons to get there,” Della commented.

“How are we going to find guns?” Jimmy asked.

“If my phone worked we could google it.” Zack answered. “Now we’re stuck with yellow pages if we can find a phone book. What’s the closest town?”

Steve retrieved a map from his glove box. After looking over the map, he answered. “Hondo.”

“I don’t think it’s much of a town,” Zack answered. “My folks used to drag my sister and me along antiquing on weekends and from what we saw it was mostly tourist shops and stores.” Zack’s voice trailed off and he looked at his feet. “I wonder if my folks are still alive.”

Steve looked over his shoulder at the big black kid. “Wherever they are I’m sure they’re proud of you. None of us would have made it this far without you.”

Zack looked embarrassed. “Thanks.”

“Now that we all understand how much we need each other to stay alive let’s head out. Watch for a gas station, pawn shops or hunting stores.” Steve advised as he put the van in gear. “Gas is getting to the point where we’re going to be walking soon if we don’t find some.”

They rode in silence until Della pointed at a small mom-and-pop gas station at the intersection of a gravel road. Signs advertised post office, stamps, worms and cold beer and hand-tied flies.

Steve slowed the van as he studied the building and surrounding area. With only two vehicles visible, he released the break and moved the van to the fueling island. Light from inside the small storefront glowed through the large windows at the side of the building.

“They have power.” Della declared excitedly. “I think I see someone inside.”

“Good,” Steve warned. “I’ll fill up the tank before we check it out.”

Everyone waited while Steve inserted the pump nozzle into the gas tank. While the gas tank was filling, he leaned into the window and whispered. “I think I hear big heavy duty engines.”

Della whispered. “Should we leave?”

“We’ll come back when they’ve gone,” Steve announced. “If it’s them, there’ll be trouble.”

The rumbling grew louder. They were moving fast and sounded like they were heading down the road straight for them.

Steve pulled the nozzle from the tank, screwed the cap closed and walked back to the driver’s seat. He slid in behind the wheel and cranked the engine. He put the vehicle in gear and accelerated. The vehicle spun out and he steered it around the back of the building to a side road that headed up a tree shrouded hill behind the store. When the asphalt turned to gravel, he eased off the accelerator and quickly slowed the van.

“I have to pee!” Sandy whined. “Why did you do that?”

Della snapped. “He heard vehicles coming. They could be the ones from the farm.”

“Oh. I still have to pee.” She answered then fell silent.

Della raised her hand. “Give me a minute.” She retrieved the map and studied it a moment. “It looks like this road loops back west a little further down and ends up running parallel to the road we were on for about ten miles then turns back to the state road.”

Steve guided the van down the gravel road to the curve and realized it was following a ridge about a quarter mile above the state road. “I’ll stop when we see the store. You can go in the bushes while I go down and see who that was. I want to make sure it’s alright before we head back down the road.”

“Ugh,” Sandy complained. “Pee in the bushes?” Sandy folded her arms across her chest.

Della turned around and scowled.

Steve parked the van under a canopy of trees overlooking the building and parking lot below. He walked to the edge of the road and the sloping terrain between there and the rooftop of the station.

As he studied the slope with the scrub trees, brush and briers Jimmy grabbed his arm. “You can’t do that.”

Steve scowled. “I can.”

Zack stepped forward. “It’s not that. We know you can, but we can’t protect Della and Sandy like you can if something happens. Jimmy and I can go down there and take a look.”

After a moment of hesitation, Steve nodded. “Okay. Don’t take chances. Look and see who it is. That’s all. Surveillance then get your asses back up here and report.”

“Got it,” Zack answered. Jimmy saluted with a smirking grin.

Zack and Jimmy headed down the embankment toward the buildings below amid a landslide of gravel and dirt.

“Be quiet,” Steve ordered as they disappeared behind a large clump of bush.

Steve watched the boys pick their way down the first two hundred foot slope. They clutched at small clumps of bushes and trees working their way down the steep incline. Steve finally lost sight of them.

The two young men stopped where at the bottom of the slope ten minutes later and worked their way through the bushes to the back of the building.

Zack pressed his back against the cinderblock wall and worked his way toward the front of the building with Jimmy close on his heels. When Zack got to the corner he peered between the wall and the edge of a fenced enclosure. Jimmy squatted to get a good look at the scene in the parking lot.

Two trucks with massive, off-road tires sat in the parking lot, one truck candy-apple red and the other gunmetal gray. The boys listened as an angry voice rose above the idling engines of two pickups. An elderly couple, presumably the proprietors of the small store, and a middle-aged man, probably a random survivor, was pushed up against the metal brush guard of one of the trucks.

“Which way did they go?” A bearded man demanded.

I wouldn’t tell you if I knew, Willie Baker.” The old man answered.

“You’ll tell me or I’ll shoot you, old man!” He yelled. “They killed my brother.”

The old man snorted. “What did you two do now?” He jerked his arm free. “I ain’t helping you kill someone else. Knowing you and your brother, you probably did something to provoke ‘em. You need to get yourself home and protect your family from the judgment coming.”

“That’s what we’re doing. “Squatters broke into the barn on Uncle Alvin’s place. They tore up the camper and damned near burned down the barn. When we came after them, they shot Joe.”

The old man laughed. “As much as you and the truth are strangers, I doubt that. Speaking of, how did you suddenly come by these fancy rigs? I know those trucks don’t belong to you, two boys. Who did you steal ‘em from?”

A sudden shot rang out and the old man fell to the ground. A red blossom appeared on the middle of his shirt. He lay still, unmoving. Dead.

The old woman screamed and dove at the man with the gun. “Good for nothing bastard! You will pay for this.”

Another shot rang out. The old woman fell to the ground next to her husband.

The sole survivor raised both hands and began backing away.

Willie Baker shoved his gun under the man’s chin. “I want to know which way those bastards went.” He pointed at two of the men with him. “Look around. See if you can track ‘em.”

Zack grabbed at Jimmy’s arm. “Gotta go.” He whispered. “Now.”

Jimmy stood frozen in surprise and shock until Zack jerked him to his feet and pulled him back into the brush. They were turning away as a third shot rang out.

Zack pushed Jimmy toward the path leading up the slope. The ground shifted while vegetation did little to ensure their footing, but arms and legs pumped a frantic escape.

“They killed him!” Jimmy whispered as he reached for a clump of grass to pull himself up to the next stand of scrub trees.

“Climb. Just climb!” Zack wheezed. “They catch us, we’re dead.”

Both young men grabbed at vines and roots from the stunted shrubs pulling themselves higher and into the heavy brush out of sight. They continued the climb until they reached the top of the ridge.

When they got to the top of the ridge, Sandy and Della grabbed at clothes and arms to pull them over the edge of the roadway.

“What happened?” Della demanded.

“Rednecks!” Zack answered as he turned to pull Jimmy back on the roadway with a jerk of his wrist. “They’re looking for us.”

The foursome bolted for the van and jumped inside.

“We gotta get out of here.” Zack declared. “They killed three people. It’s bad. Really bad.”

Steve cranked the engine and eased the van into gear and accelerated. He turned the wheel onto the narrow gravel road. “I hope this road goes clear through. Otherwise, we are so screwed.”

“Don’t matter. We can’t go back that way.” Zack ordered. “They find us, we’re dead. They killed those people at the store.”

Jimmy drew in a deep breath. “You ever see that Burt Reynolds movie with the banjos? Their first cousins are after us.”